Hidden causes of tooth and jaw pain

How to tell whether your tooth or jaw pain is dental or chiropractic (plus DIY jaw and spine exercise solutions).

If you’re suffering from unexplained tooth pain or jaw pain, do you call a dentist or a chiropractor? It’s not a trick question. Tooth pain that can’t be explained by a cavity or structural issue such as a crack may in fact be referred from the jaw. Jaw pain, or pain in the sliding hinge-like ‘temporomandibular joint’ or TMJ (tem-puh-roe-man-dib-you-lur), is more common than you might think. 

The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are the joints which allow us to talk, chew and yawn. They are formed by the mandible or jaw bone, joining with the temporal bone of the skull, just below and in front of your ear. The position and movement of these joints are controlled by muscles that surround the joints, enabling you to move your jaw up and down, side to side, forward and back.

TMJ or TMD, also known as temporomandibular joint dysfunction or disorder, is a term given to a group of symptoms that occur when the jaw joints and associated muscles are disrupted. TMJ affects an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of adults and is more common in women and those aged 20 to 40. 

Common symptoms

Telltale signs of TMJ or related dysfunction can include:

  • Clicking of the jaw
  • Restricted motion or even ‘locking’ of the jaw
  • The sensation of toothache, ear ache or headache
  • Pain or tenderness in the lower part of the face 

What causes TMJ pain?

The causes of TMJ pain are many and varied. While it may result from habits such as teeth grinding or slouching (posture can contribute), it may, in some cases, indicate ‘temporomandibular dysfunction’ or TMD. Common causes or triggers may include:

  • Teeth grinding or clenching
  • Poor posture
  • Poor bite (e.g. underbite or overbite)
  • Joint damage caused by injury
  • Arthritis-related damage
  • Disc misalignment or damage

Chiropractic diagnosis and treatment

A chiropractor can undertake a thorough assessment and diagnose the cause of pain or dysfunction and tailor treatment to your condition. Treatment of the TMJ joint focuses on relieving tension in the muscles around the joints, using trigger point therapy to alleviate the jaw pain associated with TMJ. If the cause is identified as being misalignment in your neck and/or upper back, treatment may include chiropractic adjustments of spinal joints around problematic areas. Other chiropractic techniques may also be used to alleviate mechanical causes and symptoms.

DIY treatment

While DIY treatments are not a substitute for chiropractic treatment, for mild cases or between visits, these simple tips may help to lessen jaw tension.

  1. Give up gum

It may be tempting to try to ‘loosen’ a tight jaw by creating an exaggerated chewing motion or by chewing gum, however, chewing regular solid meals and snacks is adequate activity for your jaw. Constant chewing can place extra strain on the jaw and worsen symptoms. If you chew gum after food or drink for dental protection, to stimulate saliva or freshen your breath, limit gum-chewing sessions to two to three minutes. 

  1. DIY face massage 

If you suffer from a painful or tight jaw, especially if you grind or clench your teeth, you may be able to feel that your masseter muscles (the ones just above your jawline on each side, below your cheekbone) feel firm and pronounced – like muscle knots. Gently massaging these points can help to encourage these muscles to relax and release tension, in turn providing relief from pain and discomfort. 

  1. Conscious unclenching

For many people with jaw pain, clenching is an automatic, habitual practice during waking and sleeping hours. Make a point of checking in at regular intervals throughout the day and consciously unclenching if you find you’re holding tension. If this is done regularly, the relax and release action will also become a habit, which may help to resolve pain and discomfort. Are you clenching right now? At set times or whenever you notice tightness or pain, slightly lower your jaw until your teeth are no longer touching. You can do this with your mouth closed. If you’re holding your tongue against the roof of your mouth, let it gently fall back down. 

  1. Align your spine 

Poor posture or spinal misalignment can contribute to TMJ pain or jaw tension. Optimal posture is when your ear is in line with your shoulder rather than your head pushing forward, which is common among people who work at computers. To assess your alignment, ask someone to take a photograph of you from the side while you’re standing up straight (or what feels like straight to you). If your ear is not above your shoulder, regularly practising this posture correction exercise can help. First, lie on the floor or on a mat or stand directly against a wall and tuck your chin to your chest. Relax and repeat. Complete this multiple times per session. With repetition, this exercise can help to strengthen muscles in your neck, in turn helping to relieve jaw pain.

If you are experiencing persistent jaw pain or dysfunction, or have unexplained symptoms such as tooth pain without dental causes, a chiropractor may be able to provide treatment to resolve both the cause and symptoms.

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